Elena Ferrante has written her story twice: once in a group of intense, highly modeled short novels whose action unfolds over a brief time span; and again in the four sprawling, rambunctious, decades-spanning works that compose her Neapolitan saga. That these two modes of storytelling — the compact and the commodious; the modern and the historical; the distilling of life into metaphor and its picaresque, riotous expansion — are so obviously the obverse of each other constitutes yet another narrative, the story of how an individual (more specifically, a woman) arrives, after the vicissitudes of living, at a definition of self. “Do you want the long answer or the short?” is the customary divide between explanations versus outcomes in the retelling of events. Ferrante gives us both the long answerand the short, and in doing so adumbrates the mysterious beauty and brutality of personal experience.
Ferrante is the by now famously anonymous Italian novelist whose works started appearing in 1992, though their setting is the Naples of the 1950s onward. By the time we reach “The Story of the Lost Child,” the fourth and final installment of the Neapolitan series, we have arrived at the 21st century and Elena, its narrator, is growing old. One can call Ferrante’s novels “her story” for the reason that they are openly autobiographical in form: Against the telling and retelling of the life of a single Neapolitan mother of two — frequently called Elena — who rises from impoverished beginnings to become a successful author, publisher and academic, her anonymity is a sort of beau geste as well as a precaution. These facts are as consistent in the short novels as in the long, but in the Neapolitan saga Ferrante’s writ runs much wider, into detailed accounts of state corruption, murder and political scandals whose participants are presumably recognizable to the modern Italian reader.
Ferrante’s preoccupations — set out with great clarity in her short books “The Days of Abandonment” and “The Lost Daughter,” and discernible in a different way amid the clamor of the Neapolitan novels — are with the inherent radicalism of modern female identity; the struggles of the female artist or intellectual with her biological and social destiny as a woman; and, perhaps most strikingly, with motherhood as it is lived by that woman in all her striving, transitional, divided newness. “The Days of Abandonment,” Ferrante’s finest short work, describes the awakening of its narrator into a Medea-like emotional frenzy when her husband coolly leaves her for a young and beautiful woman. Left alone in their apartment with the care of their two young children, she undergoes a complete dismantling of her traditional, passive female identity and reassembles herself as a raging, active and ultimately autonomous being. What is sacrificed is her relationship with her children; or so, at least, she fears. In this novel as well as others, the narrator views that sacrifice ambivalently, sometimes experiencing it as loss and sometimes glimpsing in it possibilities for a new, more complex maternal identity. The power and prestige of the conventional mother is something from which Ferrante’s narrators — as daughters — have struggled to free themselves: What Ferrante describes so brilliantly is the double loss that entails for the modern woman, who finds herself neither mothered nor able to mother in turn.
“The Story of the Lost Child” picks up these themes, as Elena and Lila, the girlhood friends and rivals whose relationship spans and forms the backbone of the Neapolitan novels, enter the middle terrain of marriage and motherhood. In Elena and Lila, Ferrante’s modern woman is bisected and given two faces; where in her other works the divided woman speaks to and wrestles with herself, the Neapolitan series externalizes and literalizes those politics to show their almost insurmountable complexity. Elena is the woman who fears that her achievements and successes, while having the appearance of feminist autonomy, are in fact the fruits of a continuing, covert slavery to patriarchal values. Lila is the unwritten, unexpressed female potentiality, a more obstinate version of Virginia Woolf’s concept of Shakespeare’s sister. Elena’s lifelong fear — that Lila, while having made no mark on the world, is in fact more brilliant than she is — bites more deeply, as the two women age, into the very roots of female identity: continuity, stability, the capacity to nurture.
By now Elena has two daughters. Separated from their father, compelled by her effortful ascent into the literary world, she inhabits the rackety motherhood of the compartmentalized woman, by turns abandoning, remorseful, selfish, valiant and plagued with guilt. Lila has a single son, the unprepossessing Rino. Unlike Elena, who has moved to Florence and to a life of middle-class values, Lila has remained in the Naples area in all its untransfigurable squalor. Like everything else she does, Elena’s version of marriage and family life bears an aspirational taint — an accusation she imagines coming from Lila, and frequently turns against herself. In order to disprove it, she decides in the wake of her marriage’s collapse to return to Naples with her two daughters to live. She takes up residence first in a neighborhood overlooking Lila’s, then in the apartment directly above hers, and there, in the pure gothicism of this spatial arrangement, the two women resume their relationship, Lila acting as mother to Elena’s daughters — and almost, therefore, to Elena herself — so that Elena can pursue her career.
With this shift into a psychological paradigm, Ferrante implies much about the stubbornly cyclical nature of female evolution. This atmosphere intensifies when both women, well into their 30s, conceive and give birth to daughters: Lila’s quicksilver bright, Elena’s slow to learn and — after she is summarily abandoned by her philandering father, whom she adores in the abstract — secretly worshipful of male power. What Ferrante illustrates here is the externalizing of an inner supposition whose contradictions lie deep within the female character in both its realized and unrealized state: The woman who has not proved herself through traditional measures of accomplishment suspects she has brilliance hidden inside her; while the realized woman, the woman who can point to her own successes, is afraid she has none. “She possessed intelligence,” Elena writes of Lila, “and didn’t put it to use but, rather, wasted it, like a great lady for whom all the riches of the world are merely a sign of vulgarity.” Elena’s own use of her talents has been, she increasingly sees, a form of submission too common among women, “and that submission had — through trials, failures, successes — reduced us.”
The fate of the women’s two daughters — their mothers’ imagos, the re-enactors of their symbiosis — is, predictably perhaps, entirely symbolic. Lila’s child, in her moment of greatest potential, when her rare intelligence is visible but not yet practicable, vanishes one afternoon from a Naples street corner. Elena lives on to make her plodding progress from vulnerability to education to self-realization. She becomes, in short, normal — and this, Ferrante suggests, is where the female drive toward autonomy, with all its racking, successive waves, will ultimately deliver us: into a reality that is, if not transformed, at least better adjusted. Elena and Lila may both suspect that Lila possesses the greater, more radical brilliance. But the achievement of these novels belongs solely to Elena. “I’ve finished this story that I thought would never end,” she writes, finally. “I finished it and patiently reread it not so much to improve the quality of the writing as to find out if there are even a few lines where it’s possible to trace the evidence that Lila entered my text and decided to contribute to writing it. But I have had to acknowledge that all these pages are mine alone.”
THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD
Book 4, The Neapolitan Novels: “Maturity, Old Age”